Norman Mailer

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Norman Mailer in 1948.

Norman Mailer, one of the most prolific, outspoken and accomplished writers of the second half of the 20th century, published over 40 books in virtually every literary genre, including some he invented. He was also a leading public intellectual who spoke out on a broad range of issues, from the dangers of plastic and the deadening effects of television to the Women's Liberation Movement and the Iraq War. His dramatic interpretations of American cultural phenomena and his idiosyncratic views on sex, violence, power, technology, architecture, identity and the art of writing appeared in a 60-year run of novels and nonfiction narratives, plays, poems, sports reporting, political essays, biographies and countless media interviews. Acclaimed as one of the pioneers of the "New Journalism", he was a relentless innovator and connoisseur of narrative forms and techniques.

Born in Long Branch, New Jersey in 1923 to Jewish immigrant parents, he grew up in Brooklyn, and graduated from Harvard in 1943, where he studied engineering. He served in the U.S. Army as a rifleman and cook in the Pacific theater from 1944–46, and attended the Sorbonne on the G.I. Bill after the war. His first novel, The Naked and the Dead (1948), which traces the campaign to take a Japanese-held island, is widely considered to be one of the finest novels of WWII. It has never gone out of print and has been translated into a score of languages. His eleventh and final novel, A Castle in the Forest, an exploration of the boyhood of Adolf Hitler, was published months before his death in November 2007. Mailer is the only major American author to have bestsellers in six consecutive decades. Some of his other major novels are: The Deer Park (1955), An American Dream (1965), Why Are We in Vietnam? (1967), Ancient Evenings (1983), and Harlot's Ghost (1991). His biographical works include portraits of Marilyn Monroe, Muhammad Ali, Henry Miller, Pablo Picasso, Lee Harvey Oswald, Madonna and Jesus Christ.

A co-founder of The Village Voice in 1955, Mailer also wrote for Life, Esquire, New Yorker, Harper's, Partisan Review, Paris Review and Vanity Fair, as well as many counterculture and underground publications. His magazine work is collected in several collections, including Advertisements for Myself (1959), the book where he established his characteristic voice — bold, acerbic and self-referenced. He appeared on almost every major television talk show and the cover of every major magazine worldwide. In the late 1960s, he made three experimental films in which the action and dialogue were improvised. All three were influential, as was his 1987 film, Tough Guys Don't Dance (based on his 1984 mystery novel of the same name), which was made using conventional techniques. Mailer ran for mayor of New York in the Democratic Primary of 1969, coming in fourth in a field of five. The same year, his nonfiction narrative about the anti-Vietnam War movement, The Armies of the Night, won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. Five of his books have been nominated for National Book Awards, including Of a Fire on the Moon (1971), his nonfiction narrative of the Apollo 11 moon shot, which was serialized in Life. Aquarius, as he referred to himself in Fire, solidified his position as the most acute observer of contemporary American reality with his sensuous and analytic examination of the space program. He won a second Pulitzer for The Executioner's Song (1979), an account of the life and death of Utah murderer Gary Gilmore, and is the only person to win Pulitzers in both fiction and nonfiction.

Mailer discovered in the 1960s that he needed a new way to see the fantastic and unpredictable events of the decade and the optics of conventional journalism were too clumsy. He decided, therefore, to interleave reportorial perseverance, fictional technique and the urgent promptings of his own intuition into a new narrative mode that would capture the momentous happenings of the era, while seeking, as he said of Picasso, "to reach into mysteries of existence that no one else had perceived". For many readers, Mailer's acumen and observation of an event is crucial to its understanding. In 2006, he was recognized for his many contributions to literature and culture with a Lifetime Achievement Award, given by the National Book Award Foundation. For the last 33 years of his life, he lived in Brooklyn Heights and Provincetown, Massachusetts with his sixth wife, the painter and novelist, Norris Church Mailer. He was married six times and was the father of nine children and ten grandchildren.

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